33 West St.
Annapolis, MD, 21401
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is 21 and over
“I was having nightmares every night, thinking, ‘Wow, they’re going to hate this,” says JD McPherson.
When he talks about his new album, Undivided Heart & Soul, there’s no glimmer of self-adulation, or even the confidence one might expect of a veteran artist. Instead, there’s a snapshot of McPherson’s creative process bringing the record to life, a journey filled with fear and change, then boldness, and, eventually, catharsis.
The best rock music has a story to tell. This record chronicles a series of upheavals, frustrations, roadblocks, and kismet—a cross-country move, failed creative relationships, a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity, and learning to love making music again by letting go.
McPherson calls moving his family from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to East Nashville a decision based “on opportunity” and one he was reluctant to make but notes the profound influence the city has had on his new crop of songs.
“Up to this point, I thought I knew what I was doing with songwriting, that I don’t do this or that,” McPherson says. “Writing with people who co-write for a living...maybe I saw myself as John Henry, and them as the steel-driving machine.”
Along with collaborations with fellow Oklahoman Parker Millsap, Butch Walker, and Aaron lee Tasjan, McPherson’s selections for Undivided Heart & Soul include many deeply personal themes: “Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young” shares writing credits with longtime bandmate Ray Jacildo and McPherson’s wife Mandy. He also delved into character profiles, both fictional and based on real-life experiences, stories McPherson has held onto but never thought of as fodder for songwriting, such as the Las Vegas bus station interlude detailed in “Style (Is a Losing Game).”
“That seems like a pretty normal thing for a singer-songwriter to do, to write about personal experience, but I really have never done that,” McPherson says. “It felt great but it also was tough at the same time. The thing is, John Henry is trying to beat the machine because he’s in awe of it. It was a lot of me saying, ‘You’re really good at this, and I have a hard time doing it.’”
With a group of soul-baring tracks taking shape, McPherson and crew scheduled studio time to help force the issue. It quickly became apparent that these sessions were not going to work, bringing McPherson’s momentum to a halt.
To clear his head, he flew to Los Angeles at the invitation of friend and longtime supporter Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who was also recording at the time. McPherson, Homme, and his Queens bandmate Dean Fertita played around with some songs, with Homme pushing McPherson outside of his comfort zone in a no-stakes environment.
“His thing was, ‘I’m going to throw all kinds of crap onto your songs that you’re not going to want to hear, and you’re going to play ridiculous stuff you wouldn’t normally do,’ and Dean was kind of the calming presence,” McPherson says.
McPherson calls the getaway “the most fun I’ve had since I was 15 years old” and returned to Nashville with a clear head, internal filters successfully stifled, ready to move forward.
That fresh perspective in tow, McPherson learned that the long-shot “backup” studio, the legendary RCA Studio B in Nashville, was willing to host his band for the making of the record. RCA Studio B was fundamental to the creation of the “Nashville Sound,” and the ghosts of some of the greatest songs in history live within its walls: Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” among them.
Artists who choose to record at Studio B are met with a rigorous list of requirements, including using a recording method appropriate during the studio’s heyday. Since the studio is a working museum by day, the entirety of McPherson’s workspace had to be reset at night: Load in all equipment in the late afternoon, work until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., and leave no trace nightly. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
“Those rules would probably turn a lot of bands off, but they turned us on, 100 percent,” McPherson says. “I really love walking into a classic studio as much as I love getting my hands on a really old guitar. I like knowing that something was used for a long time and has good things in it.”
But this isn’t an old Nashville record, by any measurement, nor is it the record McPherson set out to make, with credit due to co-producer Dan Molad (also the drummer for Lucius).
“There’s a pretty broad gap in our tastes, what we do and what we’re into,” McPherson says. Where he’s as likely to lean on The Cramps as he is Irma Thomas for inspiration, Molad’s left-field production suggestions included a Casio synthesizer and running a Fender Rhodes through a tape delay. (McPherson nixed the former; the latter became the signature sound of one of the record’s tracks.) “We ended up learning a lot from each other, and he did a lot of stuff I’d have never thought to do.”
During the song “Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young,” JD sputters the line “We’ve worn out all the songs we’ve sung.” This is not a statement McPherson takes lightly.
“This record was difficult for me to make, difficult to write, difficult to record. It took a lot for me to say that I can’t force these songs to be the way people are expecting,” McPherson says.
Undivided Heart & Soul is a statement record, one that asserts McPherson as he is now, battle-weary but stronger than ever.
To borrow a phrase from heaven's new poet laureate, Leonard Cohen, Nicole Atkins was "born with the gift of a golden voice." But somewhere along the way she misplaced it. Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the story of Nicole finding her voice, and how, in doing so, she went a little crazy.
Great Art is born of struggle and Nicole was struggling. The problem was that she felt nothing. Her fans responded to her performances with the same fervor they always had, but Nicole felt nothing. Her new husband loved her and doted on her, but she felt nothing. She traced it back to her drinking and decided to try to learn to live without booze. But that first day of sobriety brought with it an unexpected additional test--Nicole's dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. This Jersey girl, whose big voice was tethered to a big heart, and whose reaction to the mundane setbacks of everyday life had always been equally overblown, suddenly faced a real problem. "It toughened me up," she says.
And the songs started to come. Little bursts of therapeutic creativity. Thorny feelings transubstantiated into melodies. Beginning with "Listen Up," a wake-up call to a lucky girl who hadn't realized how lucky she'd been, Nicole started to find her redemption in these songs. They rang true in a way no songs ever had before. They came from a deep, vulnerable place. If Nicole had been living an unexamined life, she wasn't anymore.
She needed her newfound toughness though, as in the midst of all this turmoil, she prepared to move from her native Asbury Park to Nashville. Having spent more than a decade as the de facto queen of Asbury, Nicole was finally leaving the warm, but often stifling confines of her hometown. During one of her final nights before the exodus, a song came to her in a dream. “I Love Living Here Even When I Don’t” summed up the complicated feelings she experienced as she said goodbye to the only real home she'd ever known.
In Nashville, Nicole's once hectic life was very different. Left home alone as her tour manager husband plied his trade out on the road, Nicole found herself writing songs that examined "feelings of separation and being scared of new surroundings." In particular, the songs "Sleepwalking" and "Darkness Falls" echo like ghosts through an empty house.
Unsurprisingly, her sobriety faltered. She drifted in and out of it. Nicole knew the wagon was good for her, but she had a hard time staying focused on what was good for her. As it went on however, the clarity of those sober days started to shine through. And she was able to string them together in longer stretches. For the first time, she was able to offer a shoulder for others to lean on, rather than always being the one in need of a shoulder. It helped that she had to be strong for herself in order to be strong for her dad. Much of what she was feeling was painful, but it beat the hell out of feeling nothing.
She reconnected with her old friend Chris Isaak who encouraged her, in the midst of all the soul-searching and soul-baring, to write songs that emphasized the one trait that most sets her apart from the mere mortals of the industry, telling her, “Atkins, you have a very special thing in your voice that a lot of people can’t or don’t do. You need to stop shying away from that thing and let people hear it.” To that end, the two of them collaborated on Goodnight Rhonda Lee's standout track, the instant classic, "A Little Crazy.”
Great Art is a journey -- and Nicole Atkins traveled quite a distance to bring us Goodnight Rhonda Lee. As Nicole explains it, "This record came to me at a time of deep transition. Some days were good, some not so good. What I did gain, though, from starting to make some changes and going inward, and putting it out on the table, was a joy in what I do again. Joy in the process and a newfound confidence that I don’t think I've ever had until now. The album title, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, also came from those feelings. Rhonda Lee was kind of my alias for bad behavior, and it was time to put that persona to bed."
The direction in which these songs were headed was obvious. Nicole's voice had always recalled a classic vinyl collection. She is the heir to the legacy of "Roy Orbison, Lee Hazelwood, Sinatra, Aretha, Carole King, Candi Staton." She is untethered to decade or movement or the whim of the hipster elite.
In order to capture the timelessness she sought, Nicole enlisted a modern day Wrecking Crew: Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, TX, who had just risen to national acclaim as Leon Bridges' secret weapon. "We spoke the same language. We wanted to make something classic, something that had an atmosphere and a mood of romance and triumph and strength and soul." The album was recorded in five days, live to tape. The album that Nicole and the boys came up with in those five days, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, is nothing less than Great Art and a quantum leap forward for Nicole Atkins who, no matter how much she grows up, will always be a little crazy.